For this month’s edition of Fearless Fridays, an interview series in which I talk to people who have made big career changes, I’m speaking to David Payne. A friend from university, he started his career at McKinsey, doing two years as a consultant, after which he tried various roles within finance. Although he says that he doesn’t feel that he’s made the “fun, big lifestyle changes” that other people in this series have made, it’s clear that he’s found something that he’s passionate about, where he can work with a great team on solving problems with a real impact on the clients they serve. (I’ve recently written about impact and the importance of this for job satisfaction, you can read more here.)
One of the interesting aspects of Dave’s move is that he had initially assumed that if he left finance he would “follow his passion” towards something in food and wine, and in fact he did experiment with a wine pop-up idea. However, on coming across a business and a team that he believed in, he ended up joining a startup that has him excited about staff scheduling! The lesson I draw from this is that making the move from a more traditional corporate job into something that lets you have more of a direct impact won’t necessarily come from the most obvious places, and that it’s always worth being open to unexpected opportunities that may come your way. This also means reaching out to people and talking and learning about the different possibilities that might exist.
Dave also points out a feature of the careers advice that we received when we were at university, which was the very narrow focus on a career path that would take you into consulting, law or banking – with everything else seen to be far too risky and alternative. With the world of work changing, the prestige and status of those jobs, and definitely the relative job safety and fulfilment that was seen to come with them, is eroding and other options are not only available but often even to be preferred over those previously more obvious choices. In the end, it always come down to finding something that fits your personality strengths, skills, and goals, and that lets you achieve your goals – while having fun doing it!
Read on to get Dave’s story or watch the video to get the full discussion.
Leaving a corporate job behind to follow your passion: From finance to tech startup
David Payne started his career at McKinsey and then spent many years in finance, in hedge funds and investment banks. Last year, he made the leap to a tech startup. The team had ten people when he joined and has since doubled in size. RotaGeek is a retail technology company that makes an app that does staff scheduling for shift workers.
1) At what moment did you decide it was time for a change?
Probably ever since I got into it in 2006, I had questioned the move into finance. I never regretted my two years at McKinsey, which were excellent, but I did wrestle with the move into finance after that for a long time, and always wondered if it had been the right thing. I did a bunch of different jobs within that sector, searching for things that would suit me better, experimenting with various aspects of it. I really liked a lot of what I did: I found it intellectually inspiring, I was doing interesting work, a lot of the time with interesting people, with good access to top executives and all kinds of fun things like that; plus rewards were reasonably good as well. So there were lots of really nice things about working in finance – but all along I questioned whether it was work that needed doing.
So my wrestling was with a quest for impact and I fundamentally felt, even when I was enjoying myself doing finance work, that it didn’t really advance the wheel of mankind. Most of what investment funds and banks are doing is trading wealth around between wealthy clients and institutions, and it doesn’t really impact the real economy in any major way. And as a professional services person your direct impact – your ability to have an idea about what a business should be doing instead of just predicting what probably will happen, your ability to have any impact on real people and real things – is really limited. It wasn’t just selling my soul; but in some ways, it was never enough. Looking back, I question why I left it so long before making any change at all.
I guess I thought if I ever jumped ship and made a big change it would be into a food business, either as a sideline or as a main career, because I have a real passion for food, and I had taken a year off to train as a chef. In 2015, I did experiment with a wine pop-up and various things in food. After the wine pop-up and towards the end of 2015, I had made my mind up that “enough was enough” and I was going to have to make a move.
It was early 2016 when, having made my decision that I was probably going to leave investment banking, the investment bank that I worked for effectively collapsed, and I was made redundant – hundreds of us were. So I had effectively made the decision but then had it slightly taken away from me! I had a funny psychological reaction where I felt the immediate need to go and get another finance job because it didn’t seem right to not have that safety net, or not to have made the decision on my own terms. I interviewed for various jobs and got one, and it was only when I, having accepted a job, ended up phoning them up to say, “Actually, I’m not going to come” – that was the real decision to definitely move, in the middle of last year.
2) What was the biggest challenge you faced in making the change?
I think the big challenge I’ve always had, and the reason I probably spent so long in professional services before joining a company, and in the end a really small company, doing something really different and arguably risky, was this idea of ‘picking a horse’. I think it’s why a lot of people go into things like consultancy and finance in the first place, you get to ‘keep your options open’ as people say. You’re not particularly backing any one business, you’re not becoming overly specialist in any one thing: you’re just being a smart person who likes solving problems. Those problems change all the time, and the clients and which particular horse you’re riding changes all the time. Even after deciding that directionally I should not be in finance but should be looking at jobs in the ‘real economy’, I still found it quite hard, at least initially, to narrow down the field and decide whether I should be working for a big company or a small company…
Knowing which roles you’re going to be suited for, which companies are going to be successful – deciding, I suppose, ultimately which horse to back, when you have to just pick one thing and be focused on it completely for years – I’ve always found that difficult. I think lots of people find that difficult, that’s probably the big reason people go into these things in the first place, and maybe why they stay in them too.
3) Where did you get the support you needed to make it happen?
I would say that there were three things that ultimately made this emotionally easy.
One was that friends were very supportive and positive. There is obviously an element of rewards and status that goes into trying to pick what your career should be. I think I had a sort of legacy perception that doing a credible banking job was a respectable thing. But when you start to tell people, “I’m not doing that and I’m looking at this,” people are way more excited, and they genuinely find it interesting hearing about it. There’s a funny kind of status – or at least interest value, bringing something to the party – that comes from that. Among my friendship group, I’ve also got some really good role models, people who’ve been really successful and got a lot of pleasure out of doing something slightly quirkier, in small business or new technology.
The second thing was that my girlfriend went through a really similar thing at a really similar time, so effectively we were backing each other up. She’s made the move from private equity to a really tiny startup, which is just doing its initial fundraising now (the product is Ooho, an edible water bottle with biodegradable packaging). So as we were going through that whole process of getting out of professional services and finance into something more interesting – and hers is really changing the world! – we were there for each other, which was also great.
The third thing that made the decision easy was stumbling across this specific opportunity. I’m not sure that I would have been happy in just any startup; I don’t think it was ‘small company’ or ‘technology’ that I was looking for specifically. I just found this particular team and this particular problem really compelling: I think it’s a big commercial opportunity and a really fun thing to be working on. Having stumbled across this company, and this team, it seemed like a very easy decision in the end.
4) What’s the best part of your lifestyle today?
In some ways, I probably haven’t changed my lifestyle very much at all, compared to some of the people you’ve interviewed before, who’ve gone and done very outdoorsy things, or very creative things, or moved from working as part of a team to being completely standalone – making quite big changes in their lifestyle. In that sense, I’m still doing an office job; and I’m working probably harder, if anything, than before – but I’m much happier doing it, because of that feeling of “problems we’re solving actually matter”. My role within this machine is a bit bigger, I have a bit more of an opportunity to put myself in the minds of my customers and try to work out what it is we can do for them and immediately impact them, and hopefully make life easier for the staff working in their shops. So it’s the nature of the problems we’re solving.
People make a lot of little decisions when they’re doing these things manually – they make schedules with pencil and paper and they decide to put certain people in for certain days and certain times, and when to let people take their holiday, or how you should send this information up to payroll – decisions about how they want to run their shop and how things have to be recorded. It sounds like it’s going to be easy but as soon as you get into the detail of what goes into making a good schedule, codifying the rules that people implicitly use but wouldn’t know to tell you that they use – it makes for a really good logic puzzle!
It’s also a completely different mix of skills and people in our team, and a much smaller outfit; it has a really nice collegiate feel. Probably the biggest thing is that there is an element of making it up as we go along – no one knows better than us how to do this, and no one’s ever really done it before. It’s a pretty new field, so the things that we invent are genuinely being invented for the first time, and that’s an interesting environment. It feels more cutting edge, and like there’s room to try anything.
5) What one piece of advice would you give to someone who is considering making a big career or lifestyle change?
I remember when we were at university the careers fair only had consulting, law and banking, and everything else – including going into big corporations – was considered an alternative career, and joining a small company or something with an unproven technology was literally an insane career. It was the culture, received wisdom, that those sorts of things might be exciting and you might make your fortune and it might be brilliant… but probably not! The trade-off was very clear.
I think in a way that’s just been proven wrong. The world has changed, quite quickly after that, and now in the examples I have among other people of that generation, who made the change earlier, generally even the things that went wrong didn’t go very wrong, and everything sorted itself out just fine. You benefit from the experience, even if you don’t immediately find that thing that’s going to make you happy or that’s going to reward you highly straight away.
So that’s probably the main thing, to make sure you’re not embracing that legacy logic that isn’t true anymore, that these professional services provide the better, safer, trade-off – the evidence is that this isn’t right. For anybody who is in professional services who doesn’t positively and absolutely love it and genuinely enjoy being defined by it, it’s probably worth looking at other things. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on out there!
The how of making such a change is a much harder question. I don’t normally use the word ‘network’, I think it has a slight mercenary feel to it, but I was able to reach out to people, including people I was not that close to but I knew might know some of the things I wanted answers to, and just to say: “Can I borrow you for an hour?” or “Do you know anyone else I should talk to?” People were very giving and really helpful. Maybe this is obvious, but reach out to all those people because they don’t mind being asked and they can certainly get you started!
There’s a part of me that thinks we should all be making career decisions slightly differently now, in light of the way that the world of work is probably going to evolve quite significantly within what we would have called our natural career spans. Planning a career around wanting to climb, climb, climb for the next 30 years – in whatever field, be that the corporate field or something a bit more creative, a bit smaller or a bit more innovative – has to be considered in the context of a world of work that probably isn’t going to be the same shape in terms of seniority, progression or retirement. You have to be doing work that you enjoy doing, rather than work for a particular purpose; because those equations are not going to look quite like they did for our parents.
Have you made big changes in your life and want to inspire others to do the same? Get in touch to share your story!